Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Bell-Bottoms

McKelvey’s ad, Youngstown Vindicator, March 4, 1973 via Google News Archive

I make a regular habit of looking at the Vindicators from fifty years ago. Boy, this one brought back memories. For one thing, I worked at McKelvey’s when this ad appeared. I might have hit that sale, using my store discount. And I remember wearing jeans that looked like that, complete with “patch” pockets. My most far out ones were maroon pants with orange patch pockets. I wore them with two-tone platform shoes. (I sincerely hope there is no photographic evidence of that outfit, which I often wore with a matching paisley shirt).

Some bell-bottoms just had a slight flare while others, “elephant bells,” were so wide they completely covered your shoes when you were standing still. Often, we wore them long, where they actually touched the ground and became frayed over time. That was part of the look. Some flares had a triangle patch of sewn-in material of a different color to make them bigger. I never figured out if they came that way from the store or were “homemade.” I suspect a bit of both. Girls’ were often low-waisted, hip hugging. The belt loops were big to accommodate the wide belts we often wore. At one points, they were combined with cuffs. I never liked them–too much fabric flopping around the bottom of your legs.

You probably know this, but bell-bottoms have been worn by sailors since the 17th century. The wide bottom legs were functional, easily rolled up for washing decks and other chores. One article suggests bell-bottoms could be pulled off over boots and inflated to serve as a kind of life preserver for sailors who fell overboard. Not certain about that one. They first became popular in Europe in the 1960’s and spread to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. Eric Clapton, singing with Derek and the Dominos, popularized bell-bottoms in “Bell-Bottom Blues,” performed here in a YouTube video from 1991:

Most “bell-bottom historians” consider The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour which ran from 1971 to 1974 as the time when bell-bottoms became popular, but I seem to remember wearing them earlier than that and that they were popular in the hippie culture from 1967 on. By the late 1970’s most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in them. They had a brief comeback in the 1990’s as “boot cut” jeans, but gave way to those skinny jeans and leggings.

What goes around comes around. According to Brunette From Wall Street, in answer to the question “Are bell bottoms back in style?” she writes, “Yes, bell bottoms are one of those fashion trends that came back in fashion for 2023 together with rave trend.” An online search yields scores of ads from a variety of well-known retailers for all sizes and shapes of bell-bottoms with prices from $30 to over $100, just a bit more than the $4.99 to $8.99 in the ad (that $8.99 would now be about $70 adjust for inflation).

Personally, there are some things that are best left in the past, along with that 32″ waistline! But it is fun to remember…

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

10 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Bell-Bottoms

  1. What a fun article. I laughed out loud at the description of your most “far out” (perfect phase) attire. I think I owned that same outfit or something very similar. I remember I had one pair with a big plaid pattern far better suited as a sport coat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the look back then. I kept a pair in my closet forever, didn’t wear them but couldn’t let go of the fun memories they brought to mind. Donated them after my daughter wanted to wear them as a halloween costume- then I knew it was time! Really, though, they were more comfy than skinny jeans any day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So happy bell bottoms are back. I was born in 1999 (lived in the YO all my life) and never got to experience the 70s so them coming back into style was a huge treat. I bought a couple vintage 70s Levis and have been rocking them ever since 2020 and I’ve just recently bought “elephant bells” that are a marron corduroy, and they are so soft and thick I fell in love with them immediately. Keep on trucking everyone 🙂


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